MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Mary Returns, Becoming Astrid, Quake, Holiday, Vengeance, Out of Love, HoneyGlue, Born in East L.A., Greasy Strangler, Mystery Road … More

Mary Poppins Returns: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The release of Mary Poppins Returns, on DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD, provides a great excuse for fans of the 1964  musical/fantasy to re-focus on the story behind the myth. It might not be essential to any enjoyment of Disney’s adaptation of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel – or its 2018 re-adaptation – but it’s always fun to spray graffiti on our landmarks.Many pop-historians thought Saving Mr. Banks (2013) would settle the score on who did what to whom and why Travers was so incensed by the Disney version. What, she was? Yes, but that’s not exactly how John Lee Hancock’s otherwise entertaining biopic, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, saw it. In fact, it echoed so many other Disney fantasies that merged fact with fiction in defense of a happy ending. What it didn’t explain was the mysterious lack of sequels to Mary Poppins, which normally would have spawned adaptations of all eight of the books in the series, which began in 1934 and didn’t end until 1988. It was a big commercial hit, with 13 Oscar nominations – winning five – and nearly unanimous praise from critics. In fact, Uncle Walt was so distressed over the possibility that Travers would spoil the gala opening, he made sure that she wasn’t invited. (She found an executive, who soothed her features by adding her name to the guest list.) In fact, most of Travers’ complaints didn’t hold water, then, and they still don’t. Instead, this wonderfully talented Australian-born writer should have followed the good witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy, click the heels of her ruby slippers together three and chant, “There’s no place like home.” Or, she might have been better advised to anticipate the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left (1972): “keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie,’ and a good one, at that.” Still, even with its revisionist take on a historic event, Saving Mr. Banks wasn’t all that far off the mark. There’s no faulting the actors’ portrayal of Disney or Travers, or Hancock’s depiction of the collaborative process that made Mary Poppins such a treat. (A quick perusal of the trivia sections at IMDB.com provides explanations for most of the misrepresentations.) In 2004, a stage musical adaptation opened on London’s West End, and, two years later, on Broadway.

The production defied her wish that no one who worked on the movie be allowed to contribute to any subsequent adaptation. And, Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Misérables”) did agree to her stipulation about only hiring English-born writers and crew. Wisely, though, Mackintosh and the folks at Walt Disney Theatrical chose to include original songs by the Sherman Brothers, with additional material by Brit tunesmiths George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The live musical did very well in both countries. Travers softened her anti-Disney stance in the 1980s, but all sorts of creative differences arose, anyway, delaying its launch until well after her death, in 1996. Flash ahead to Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel in most of the usual ways, it does tweak Julie Andrew’s sunny interpretation of the magical nanny’s personality, making her more outwardly stern and inflexible with Michael Banks’ three children. In Emily Blunt’s talented hands, Poppins is truer to Travers’ original description of the character. The family’s situation is quite a bit more dire, as well. The story is set in Depression-era London, a year after the untimely passing of Michael’s wife and 25 years since the events of Mary Poppins. Older sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) has moved into the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, largely to keep Annabel, John and Georgie from tearing the house into pieces and helping longtime housekeeper, Ellen (Emily Walters), feed and clothe them. When Jane isn’t doing that, she is a labor organizer. It’s a career choice that Disney wouldn’t have tolerated. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is preoccupied by threats from his boss, William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth), to foreclose on his home and fire him. As the bank’s deadline approaches, Mary conjures a plan to save the house and give Weatherall his comeuppance, all in one fell swoop.

By now, she’s got the kids working as a unit, alongside cockney lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Admiral Boom (David Warner) and first-mate Mister Binacle (Jim Norton), and Jack’s fellow lamplighter, Angus (Tarik Frimpong). Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameos in smaller, but still crucial scenes. Miranda and Blunt’s acting and singing in new, Broadway-ready production numbers – “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” — energize Mary Poppins Returns, without doing any damage to the Sherman Brothers’ original time-honored soundtrack, which can be heard in the background. Neither are we allowed to forget Mary Poppin’s mission to promote the notion that “everything is possible, even the impossible,” especially if Michael and Jane can rekindle their childhood enthusiasm for discovery and balancing work and play. My only problem with the picture is its length. At 130 minutes, I doubt that most younger viewers possess the stamina to stay with Mary Poppins Returns until the uplifting ending, which transcends the darkness by adding some pixie dust. (It’s correctly rated PG, for “some mild thematic elements and brief action.”) The 4K UHD presentation nicely enhances Marshall’s shifting color palette, depending on the outdoor setting, post-Victorian fashions and the live-action animation. The shimmering cityscape in the opening credits reminded me of Claude Monet’s “London, Houses of Parliament” series and other Impressionist views of urban life.

Bolstered by HDR color enhancements, the 4K produces a mild increase in sharpness over the Blu-ray, offering slightly more clear and nuanced textures across the board. Only audio geeks and purists are likely detect much of a difference between Mary Poppins Returns‘ Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus material is contained exclusively on the bundled Blu-ray disc. (A commentary track with Marshall and producer John DeLuca is available only with the enclosed digital version.) Also included  are the on-screen “Sing-Along Mode”; “Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns,” in which cast and crew members discuss the impact of the 93-year-old hoofer’s appearance in the film and how it shaped the production by returning an original cast member to the set; “Practically Perfect Bloopers”; “Seeing Things From a Different Point of View,” a collection of making-of shorts that focus on several of the musical numbers; “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” on the song’s importance to the film and how the choreography developed as an homage to the original film (young viewers are allowed to ask the musical question, “What the hell is a light fantastic?”); “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”/”A Cover Is Not the Book,” in which cast and crew discuss the challenges of filming live-action sequences that show up in the animated world; “Turning Turtle” explores set design for the “Topsy Turvy” sequence, with Meryl Streep, and how the musical number came together; “Can You Imagine That?,” a look at creating the magical sequence in the bathtub, including the slide used to move the characters into the underwater world and the rigging used to green-screen the scene before the CGI was added; the deleted song, “The Anthropomorphic Zoo”; the four-part “Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns; “Nowhere to Go But Up” highlights Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke’s work and impact on the film; and deleted scenes.

Becoming Astrid
At its core, Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid is a coming-of-age story about a Swedish teenager, Astrid Lindgren, required to clear several hurdles before emerging, years later, as one of the most celebrated authors of children’s literature on the planet. If the name rings a bell, it’s because of her authorship of the Pippi Longstocking stories. The events covered in Becoming Astrid occur almost 20 years before the first of those beloved books was published. Instead of focusing on the development of her most popular character, the movie considers how her ability to overcome the social and religious stigmas of her time informed everything that would happen later. Raised on a modest dairy farm, by simple God-fearing parents, Astrid knew that her horizons expanded further than those typically allowed Scandinavian villagers. After graduating from high school, the whip-smart Astrid (Alba August) jumped at the opportunity to work for the editor of a local newspaper. Reinhold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen) was several years older than his intern, married and the father of one of her classmates. Because Blomberg was in the process of divorcing his wife, he was vulnerable to the attention of a prime-and-proper teenager, in a hurry to grow up. If Christensen and her co-writer/husband Kim Fupz Aakeson don’t present the characters’ ensuing affair as a prime example of an early #MeToo moment, contemporary viewers won’t miss what’s right before her eyes. That’s because, when Astrid becomes pregnant, she’s the one required to give up a promising career and move out of town. Even though Blomberg promises they will be married, as soon as the divorce is finalized, we know that it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, Mrs. Blomberg sniffs out the situation and threatens her husband with charges of adultery and a never-ending trial. To avoid complications for her parents, who are reliant on the church for their living, Astrid decides to move secretly into a home for unwed mothers in Copenhagen, where she isn’t required to disclose the baby-daddy’s name. Eventually, she gives up on any chance that Blomberg will ever be in a position to acknowledge Lars as his child. Fortuitously, the saint-like woman who agrees to be the child’s foster mom is agreeable to regular visits from Astrid and a co-parenting arrangement. She’s working at the Royal Automobile Club, in Stockholm, and struggling build a nestegg. Lars isn’t quite as accommodating, however, feeling safer around the foster mother, Maria Bonnevie, wonderfully played by Trine Dyrholm (Nico, 1988).

Things come to a head, once again, when Maria is diagnosed with a fatal illness and Astrid must find a way to care for her toddler, while working  at the office as a proofreader. In what appears to be another perfect setting for a #MeToo moment, her new employer recognizes her dilemma and cuts her the slack she needs to attend to her son and still meet her deadlines. Our fears that Sture Lindgren (Björn Gustafsson), who’s married, will attempt to take advantage of Astrid, for once, aren’t realized. Indeed, they will spend the next 20 years together, as a married couple and parents of a daughter, Karin … off-screen. Long before that happens, however, Becoming Astrid ties a bow on the package, by allowing her to return to home town, with Lars in tow, where she’ll enjoy a sincere rapprochement with her parents and a family visit to church. To constantly remind viewers of the reasons we should care about her protagonist – years before Pippi enters Astrid’s life — Christensen creates a framing device build around letters she would receive decades later from young readers, who credit the stories for inspiring them to dream and overcome obstacles to success. Apropos of nothing, Lindgren created the mischievous 9-year-old, whose red hair is woven into braids, to amuse her daughter when she was sick and confined to her bed. Karin even came up with the girl’s delightful name.  The impact of Pippi’s rebellious personality on women born in the wake of World War II and, of course, their own daughters, wouldn’t be felt until the late 1960s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement forever changed male/female dynamic. Pippi also was an early, if subliminal model for women who would lead the charge in the movement to empower women. Stieg Larsson has admitted Pippi’s likeness to Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She could have been the patron saint of women belonging to Wild Grrrl bands of the early 1990s and the SuicideGirls’ online community. Alba August, whose parents are Swedish/Danish filmmakers, Bille and Pernilla August, was an excellent choice to play the girl who traded milking pails for typewriters and printers’ ink. Although I wouldn’t necessarily limit my recommendation of Becoming Astrid to teenage girls and women who grew up on Lindberg’s books, it’s the movie’s natural audience.

The Quake: Blu-ray
Like its 2015 predecessor, The Wave, the disaster depicted in The Quake is based on the laws of scientific probability and the real impact of previous tragedies. Roar Uthaug’s regional blockbuster, The Wave, was inspired by a geological event that occurred on April 7, 1934, in Tafjorden, Norway, when a huge chunk of a steep mountain fell 700 meters, into the fjord, creating a 62-meters-high tsunami. It swept away two villages, killing dozens, and prompted calls for early-warning systems. In the latter, John Andreas Andersen resets much of the calamitous action that made The Wave a hit, back in the partially restored village of Geirangerfjord, which was destroyed in the earlier picture. Also returning in The Quake is Norwegian actor Kristoffer Joner, as geologist Kristian Eikjord, the man credited with saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami. Three years later, Kristian is suffering from a debilitating bout of post-tsunami-stress disorder and depression, sufficiently serious to cause his wife and children to move to a high-rise in the capital. Although he’s still haunted by the faces of victims of the tsunami, he’s become fixated on the possibility of another disaster tearing through a more populated region. In 1904, a 5.4 earthquake shook Oslo, along the Oslo Graben rift, which, like the San Andreas Fault, presents a constant danger to the urban center. When a colleague is killed in a rockslide, inside a closed transit tunnel outside Oslo, Kristian visits the city to discover what the scientist was researching at the time of his death. Mostly, though, he wants to warn officials of the possibility of a similar disaster occurring sometime soon and encourage them to begin preparations for it. Kristian also wants to reconnect with his family and the daughter of his friend. In a Hollywood remake – please Lord, no – Jonas could be replaced by Steve Buscemi, to whom he bears a physical resemblance. Conveniently, just as city officials are preparing to write Kristian off as just another boy crying wolf, a series of electrical blackouts begin to occur. I’ll let you guess what happens next. The narratives of both The Wave and The Quake remain solidly in Syfy Channel territory, until the disasters strike and things get very exciting, indeed. The movies’ techies create a great deal of mayhem on budgets comparable to just over $5 million. In John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake, the anemic budget allows just enough leeway for an exciting escape from a bar/restaurant, teetering precariously at a chillingly high distance from the ground. The luscious scenery looks great on Blu-ray, which also adds an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Holiday
For her freshman feature, Swedish multi-hyphenate Isabella Eklöf wears the influence of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) like a tattoo drawn on her chest. That shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It’s also possible that Holiday was inspired by such sun-drenched dramas as Sexy Beast (2000), Sand Dollars (2014), Heading South (2005), Swimming Pool (2003), The Limey (1999) and Seidel’s Paradise Trilogy (2012). If none is a direct match to Holiday, they all feature characters who travel from the dreary climes of northern Europe, to places where an overabundance of sunshine and sex erase well-drawn boundaries separating decorum and risky business. The poster photo showed rising Danish star Victoria Carmen Sonne posing on an idyllic white-sand beach, probably on the Turkish Riviera, where much of Holiday was shot. Indeed, her stance and modest swimsuit wouldn’t have been out of place on the covers of such magazines as Travel, Famous Models and, yes, Holiday, from the 1950s. The appropriately named actress also graces the cover of the DVD. This time, however, Sonne’s balancing her well-toned bottom on a railing over a yacht’s tapered bow. If her character, Sascha, seems a tad more common here, it’s only because she’s looking over her shoulder with an inquisitive stare. Add heart-shaped sunglasses and she’d be the spitting image of Lolita, and just as barely legal. Sascha’s just arrived in Bodrum, on her way to her gangster boyfriend’s mancave and yacht. Once there, Michael (Lai Yde) treats her as if she were an apprentice tart on holiday, enjoying her presence one minute and pummeling her the next. The beatings usually lead to rough sex … the kind even a compliant teenage girlfriend, well on her way to becoming a sex slave, might try to avoid. Even if Michael knows no limits, Sascha understands that the primary benefit of being a modern mobster’s moll is unlimited access to champagne, cocaine, jewelry and expensive modes of transportation. Curiously, Sascha doesn’t even appear to mind being passed along to his cronies. Eklöf doesn’t turn the burners up until the 50-minute mark into her story, co-written by first-timer Johanne Algren. It’s when a vicious sexual assault – the kind that gives some men a kick, but will leave the victim fighting for life — makes something snap inside Sascha, and she knows that she’s reached a point no return. She can either go back home and become a barista, or, she could continue to enjoy the trappings of wealth and power as a sociopathic leach, not unlike Theresa Russell’s character, in Black Widow (1987), or Thomas Ripley, in Patricia Highsmith novels and adaptations.

Vengeance: A Love Story: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, stuntman-turned-director/producer Johnny Martin (Case#13) adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, “Rape: A Love Story,” as Vengeance: A Love Story. It may have been the only sound choice he made in the run-up to the straight-to-VOD thriller. It removes any ambiguity Oates may have built into the title of her story, without forcing writer John Mankiewicz (“House of Cards”) to conjure any more of his own device … or subtlety, for that matter. By comparison, Vengeance: A Love Story makes the Charles Bronson-vehicle Death Wish (1974) and more recent Peppermint (2018), starring Jessica Alba, look nuanced and contemplative. In all three of these revenge-driven films, the vigilante protagonist reacts not only to the murder/rape of loved ones by garden-variety hoodlums, but also the miscarriages of justice that follow. The same pattern was repeated in Oates’ novella. In it, Teena Maguire (Anna Hutchison) and her pre-teen daughter, Bethie (Talitha Eliana Bateman), decide to walk home from a 4th of July party, at midnight, through a wooded area on the fringes of Niagara Falls. Of course, they are attacked by a group of semi-literate hairballs, who remember Teena from high school. They’ve been celebrating our nation’s birthday by drinking cheap liquor and smoking crank. The cheerleader-cute blond is dragged into a remote boathouse and gang-raped, while Bethie is forced to watch, only a few feet away from her sister. It’s one of the most vicious sexual attacks I’ve seen in a TV-MA movie and Teena is given little chance of survival.

Enter John Dromoor (Cage), a Gulf War veteran and police detective, who’s just returned to work after the traumatic loss of his partner in a chase. He finds Bethie, walking in the middle of a road, screaming hysterically, immediately after the attack. It doesn’t take long for Dromoor to track down the rapists, who would be among the usual suspects in any crime committed within earshot of the falls. After Bethie identifies the attackers in a lineup and Teena slowly recovers from her wounds, the young men’s mother forcibly convinces her husband to mortgage their home to afford the best defence lawyer in the region, unctuously played a slick-as-owl-shit Don Johnson. Naturally, he uses the judge’s acquiescence to batter the prosecution witnesses, including Teena and Bethia, guaranteeing a dismissal of charges. Anyone who’s watched similar tales, made in the wake of Death Wish, already knows what happens next and who the avenging angel will be. The only thing left to determine is the meaning of “Love Story” in the titles of the book and movie. It’s not as obvious as one might think. Cage has played any number of cold-blooded killers and sociopaths – on both sides of the law – and, here, he’s spot-on. He even dispenses with most of his trademark theatrics. It’s always nice to find Deborah Kara Unger in a juicy role, this time as Teena and Bethia’s mother. The scenes shot at the rim of the falls are better than anything in the movie’s by-the-numbers script. For those, the production moved to the Atlanta area.

Out of Love: Blu-ray
Filmed and set in the great melting pot that is the Netherlands, sophomore writer/director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s contentious drama, Out of Love, prompts viewers to ask themselves several tough questions: how much leeway should we give lovers, who, after meeting cute, inexplicably turn into monsters; how can characters we start out liking not see the same storm clouds moving in that we do; what are we missing here, anyway; and how many times can a filmmaker pull the rug out from viewers, before we can no longer fight the urge to get up and go home. Varya (Naomi Velissariou) and Nikolai (Daniil Vorobyov) hook up after their eyes meet over the counter in a neighborhood restaurant. He’s in the kitchen, cooking, while she’s at the bar, drinking. Before too long, the Greek woman and Russian man are in bed having great sex. It’s first time we’re allowed to feel good about them, as a couple. The next time comes  when they appear to be testing the Ronettes’ time-honored theorem, “The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up (with me).” At first, we’re willing to consider the possibility that their fights are minor inconveniences. Then, Nikolai’s rage issues begin to surface, triggered, first, by Varya’s cooking, which doesn’t measure up to his. His outbursts are greeted by tantrums of her own, in which dishware and other moveable objects become casualties of war. Still, the makeup sex is pretty good. Jealousy, greed and insecurity push them to the brink of despair and separation, which, as long as they don’t have kids, is OK with us. When they meet again, near the 90-minute mark, we couldn’t care less about what happens to them. In another lifetime, maybe, these inarguably cute kids might have been able to overcome their differences and agree never to cook for each other, again.

Beyond Atlantis: Blu-ray
This low-budget, lower-profile drive-in non-thriller from 1973 combined recognizable elements of South of Pago Pago (1940), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). It did so, without adding anything positive to the time-honored story of beautiful mermaids and amphibious mermen, determined to protect a fortune in pearls from outsiders. The island’s inhabitants believe they’re survivors of the calamity that wiped out Atlantis, as do some Basques, and it’s their duty to honor its legacy. Unlike most other products from Eddie Romero, John Ashley and Sid Haig’s Philippine grindhouse factory –  Black Mama White Mama (1973), Savage Sisters (1974) and The Woman Hunt (1972), come to mind — Beyond Atlantis is an exploitation picture with no exploitable content. That is, unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, whose computer blocks all adult content, and you’ll settle for Amazons in shaggy bikinis. That’s because co-star Patrick Wayne insisted that the film be family friendly and go out PG-rated. Beyond Atlantis has been described by Corman graduate David DeCoteau as “one of the very few family-oriented B movies to come out of the Philippines.” It’s probably the closest thing to a compliment – bank-handed, as it may be – the film received. If Romero and Ashley could have predicted the VHS revolution, they might have gone ahead with plans for the mermaids to go topless and held the footage for an optional director’s-cut edition. The scenes that would have benefited most from the partial nudity are clearly visible in the finished product and any alterations would have been seamless. The cover illustration wouldn’t have to be changed, at all. As it is, Beyond Atlantis probably would have attracted more family audiences if it had been animated. Still, Romero, Ashley and Haig completists will want to take a peek at it. Bonus features include the original theatrical trailer; interviews with Ashley, Haig and actress Leigh Christian; commentary track with makeup-effects specialists Howard S. Berger and Pinoy film historian, Andrew Leavold; the 13-minute “John Ashley Remembered,” which was culled from interviews done for Mark Hartley’s 2010 documentary, “Machete Maidens Unleashed”; a photo and pressbook gallery; Berger also contributes an essay, which is printed on the inside of the cover.

The Greasy Strangler: Special Director’s Edition: Blu-ray
After somehow surviving two separate viewings of Jim Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) – three years apart – I’m prepared to defend it as the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures released after Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Apart from being a modern gross-out classic, The Greasy Strangler is consistently funny and occasionally hilarious. The humor isn’t “ironic” and the total package is too shrewdly conceived to qualify for “so bad, it’s good” status. It knows how far the envelope can be pushed and tests viewers ability to laugh out loud, while vomiting. In it, extreme social misfits, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and his son, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), live in a house that’s always on the verge of being condemned, subsisting on food whose expiration dates are long past and probably had been scavenged from dumpsters. No matter how vile it looks and tastes, Daddy Dearest insists on slathering on obscene amounts of grease. No surprise, they’re seriously out of shape, hideously coiffed, dressed in thrift-shop rejects and frequently air out their diseased cocks in public. Even though we know they’re prosthetic, the thought of any woman allowing the men to penetrate their orifices is sickening. And yet, a short, nearly rotund tourist they me       et while conducting one of their bogus Disco Walking Tours falls in love with both the color-coordinated men. Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) may be nearly as out of shape as Big Ronnie and Big Brayden, but she’s exponentially more conscious of personal hygiene and the need for borders. Janet’s willingness to share the attentions of father and son sparks a winner-take-all war between them. It also brings out the beast in Big Ronnie, who, while slathered with grease (tapioca), joins the ranks of sociopathic serial killers. After each murder, he walks through the swirling brushes at the carwash managed by Big Paul (Gil Gex), who’s blind and an easy mark for his friend’s hand-drawn counterfeit bills. It goes on like this until the movie’s slimy ending. The unrated The Greasy Strangler should come with a warning from the surgeon general attached to it, at least. The special Blu-ray edition includes 5.1 Surround Sound stereo and, of course, English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired; cast and crew interviews; commentary with  Hosking, St. Michaels and Elobar, whose careers don’t appear to have been stunted by their participation is The Greasy Strangler.

Born in East L.A.: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump’s immigration policy began to take shape after ordering one of his minions to pick up a VHS cassette of Wall Street (1987) – his favorite movie, despite its fake liberal ending – and finding a cassette of Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987), instead. Although it was rented as part of a 2-for-1 Tuesday promotion and intended for the personal enjoyment of his soon-to-be-fired houseboy, the future POTUS mistook it for a documentary and freaked out. When he realized his mistake and re-watched Born in East L.A. to find its deeper meaning, his delusional mind saw it as a work of prophesy. Instead of watching hundreds of illegal immigrants being led into the Promised Land by the wrongly deported Rudy (Marin) and his Salvadoran girlfriend, Dolores (Kamala Lopez), he somehow got it into his orange head that the freedom-seeking throng was comprised entirely of undocumented zombies, hoping to steal American jobs. The horrifying vision never left his mind. As such, Born in East L.A. is several times more relevant today, than it was in 1987, when the men and women were welcomed to the U.S. by farmers in need of pickers, willing to break their backs for sub-minimum-wage pay, and owners of food-processing plants, where it wasn’t uncommon for workers to have parts of their bodies sliced off by razor-sharp tools and thrown into the bologna.

Thirty years later, it’s entirely possibly our president is putting our economy at risk because he still can’t parse the difference between people desperate to escape poverty, gangs and tyranny for flesh-devouring fiends. Born in East L.A. may not feel as madcap as it did 40 years ago, but it’s topicality can’t be ignored. The scenes shot on the Tijuana side of the border, especially those set in the hillsides still used as rallying points for the refugees, take on a fresh aura of poignancy. In an interview included in the Blu-ray, Marin doesn’t make any excuses for the film’s slapdash appearance, except to point out its strictly monitored budget and shooting schedule. Tommy Chong only appears in a stream of cameos, during which Paul Rodriguez mistakes a painting of Jesus on the cross for the real thing. They’re still very funny. The Blu-ray adds Marin’s commentary; a 31-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a telling interview with  Rodriguez; “What Is a Disco Bunnies?,” with Lopez; a stills gallery; and the 93-minute, extended television cut of the movie, which sanitized the R-rated material in the theatrical version, while adding several deleted scenes.

Honeyglue
Then Came You: Blu-ray
The Long Goodbye
These three heart-rending films confront the subject of dying unnaturally young head-on, while also describing how the unfortunate women benefit from the kindness of friends, family members and, of course, strangers. The cancer patients in these modestly budgeted indies lose their hair, along with muscle tone, weight, their appetites and, sometimes, good reasons to fight for their lives. They stand in direct contrast to protagonists in Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), a hugely popular tragedy based on Erich Segal’s best-selling tearjerker and screenplay. Back then, viewers weren’t given a name for Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri’s suddenly devastating illness. Neither was Ali MacGraw required to sacrifice her hair for the role, lose weight or modify her natural beauty. (In Segal’s book, leukemia is mentioned as the disease that claim Jenny’s life, but the producers felt as if the reality of its impact could turn off paying customers.) Today, Jenny and Oliver (Ryan O’Neill) might have been able to survive their ordeal, through chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments unavailable to cancer patients in 1970. No actress would refuse to cut her hair off, if it meant landing a role in a sure-fire blockbuster. Neither would audiences be freaked out by having to witness the slow decline of a character they’d grown to love. Neither do these three new releases attempt to squeeze teardrops from the eyes of viewers, who know when they’re being manipulated into reacting to tragedies as if they hadn’t watched friends or relatives die before their eyes. None of the films is perfect, but all of them possess qualities that are life-affirming and inspirational.

James Bird’s Honeyglue is a prime example of the kind of movie that wouldn’t have found backers in the 1970s.The thoroughly offbeat romantic drama follows Morgan (Adriana Mather), who’s just learned that she has three months to live. Against the wishes of her curiously square and conservative parents, she falls for a cross-dressing cartoonist, Jordan (Zach Villa), who comforts Morgan while encouraging her to cross off as many items on her bucket list as she can. Although Jason doesn’t appear to be saving his money for a gender-reassignment operation, he favors women’s fashions, exotic makeup and fun hairdos. They marry and take a honeymoon, which is interrupted by a serious relapse. One of the things they both enjoy are Jason’s self-illustrated stories, featuring bees capable of turning nectar into gold.

Peter Hutchings and writer Fergal Rock’s Then Came You (2018) also features a terminally ill 19-year-old, Skye (Maisie Williams), who befriends a hypochondriac her age, Calvin (Asa Butterfield), whose every visit to the doctor ends in disappointment over the fact that he’s deemed perfectly healthy. In an odd sort of way, they’re a perfect match. When they finally hook up, Calvin helps Skye fulfill her final wishes, while she provides him with the love and courage he needs to confront and conquer his own fears. She even encourages him to pursue a relationship with an outgoing flight attendant, Izzy (Nina Dobrev), who normally would be way out of his league. Williams (“Game of Thrones”) is a gifted comic actor, who has a big future ahead of her. At the ripe old age of  21, Butterfield has already starred in such high-end projects as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Hugo (2011), Ender’s Game (2013), A Brilliant Young Mind (2014), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) and The Space Between Us (2017). The Bulgarian-Canadian actress, Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”), is 30 years old, but she doesn’t look a day over 19 in Then Came You. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hutchings gave all of them a copy of Hal Ashby’s delightfully dark comedy, Harold and Maude (1971), to study before beginning production. Butterfield is practically a dead ringer for that film’s wealthy male protagonist (Bud Cort), who’s obsessed with death,

In Jay Lyons’ heart-breaking documentary, The Long Goodbye (2019), we’re invited to watch middle-aged “normal mom” Kara Tippetts stand up to breast cancer, which has reached the terminal stage by the time we meet her. Kara is blessed with a vivacious personality, a strong family life and wonderful friends. She’s exactly the kind of woman who shouldn’t contact such a terrible disease, but, when she does, shares her recovery efforts with other cancer patients. Anyone who has experienced loss, pain or disappointment will relate to Kara,  who’s quick to smile, even through the pain. My only caveat would involve preparing for the pervasive evangelizing, which propels her struggle. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking solace in prayer and miracles, some viewers may find it difficult to square the witnessing before God and praising His good works, when someone as strong in her beliefs as Kara is in such pain. Bonus features include interviews with the best-selling Christian author Ann Voskamp (“One Thousand Gifts”) and Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, radio host and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization “accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community.”

Isiboshwa
Rich Girl
Hostage
In the latest release of long-lost titles from IndiePix’s “Retro Afrika” collection – all made in South Africa, just before the lifting of Apartheid – could be characterized as a tribute to the subgenre’s leading male actor. Although they weren’t made exclusively by black writers, directors and technical specialists, they featured all-black casts and were intended for the consumption of native audiences in strictly segregated townships and theaters. They paid homage to familiar Hollywood genres, with an emphasis on action. The link connecting Isiboshwa (1989), Rich Girl (1990) and Hostage (1986) is the presence in a starring role of Innocent Gumede (a.k.a., Popo Gumede).

In the action/comedy Isiboshwa, three adolescent boys set out on an  adventure in the bush, lured by a tale of missing treasure. Once the booty they seek is found, they’re overcome by gold-fever and turn on one another. Met with a similarly feverish pair of thieves, who attempt to scare the boys off with supernatural illusions, they gather their resources and together to combat the grownup thieves. There’s great scene in which the boys carve sharp points on the ends of bamboo stick and mimic a lion-hunting ritual passed down from generation to generation of tribesmen. They employ it to subdue one of the crooks. Isiboshwa avoids most the genre’s clichés and slapstick, in the service of casual comedy and a personality-driven fable.

In Rich Girl, Gumede plays a highly trained bodyguard for corporate clients, one of whom has a pampered and beautiful daughter who needs  protecting. As is common in such scenarios, the handsome and well-dressed Robert Gambu has his work’s cut out for him. Charlotte (Lungi Mdlala) doesn’t want protection or believe it’s necessary. Enter Hector Methanda, a popular gap-tooth actor, who specializes in tough-guy roles. He and his partner in crime kidnap both the girl and the guard, who may be one more person than they can handle. Being only 70 minutes long, Robert doesn’t waste many precious seconds planning an elaborate escape. It just sort of happens.

In Hostage, Gumede works the other side of the legal divide, as aspiring drug kingpin Bra Jack. His two underlings, Jabu and Thabi, specialize in setting up rich married men and blackmailing them, using photos of them having sex with the female side of the criminal triangle. To secure the cooperation of a stubborn warehouse owner, Bra Jack kidnaps the man’s wife and holds her for ransom. Instead of blindly acquiescing to the demand, the businessman calls in a friend who knows how these things work … or not.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission
PBS: USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter
Acorn: Mystery Road: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: The Simple Heist: Series 1
Acorn: Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 5
Ever since the release of The Right Stuff, Americans have been bombarded with documentaries, docudramas and plain ol’ dramas depicting events from the space race and beyond. Science-fiction writers could barely keep up with developments at NASA, JPL and the Johnson Space Center. When the Space Shuttle program got too boring to draw flies, let alone eyes, Hollywood screenwriters decided to clip the astronauts’ cords to the mother ship, sending the helping guy  spinning into deep space. One of the reasons taxpayers didn’t complain, when funds intended for the use by shuttle teams, were cut off is NASA’s inability to stick with narrative. Space flights lost their luster, except, perhaps, in the classrooms linked to the shuttle via the Internet. NASA probably could have sold millions of tickets for the privilege of watching astronauts copulating, while floating around their sleeping quarters in Zero-g conditions. If the highly educated and rigorously trained astronauts resisted the proposal, a couple of high-profile porn stars – Stormy Daniels and Ron Jeremy, come to mind – might want a slice of the pay-per-view action. Neither did NASA do itself any favors by keeping a tight lid on the really cool stuff going on up there, like eavesdropping on world leaders and celebrities, military research, intercepting UFOs and growing super strains of marijuana in space labs. I only mention this because of the things I learned while watching “NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission.” The PBS presentation tells the inside story of how NASA engineers – inat least one ex-Nazi — did the heavy lifting ahead of the first, now nearly completely forgotten mission to the moon.  Although the headline-making stuff would have to wait another seven months, the Apollo 8 mission laid the foundation for the far sexier Apollo 11. In addition to the risks taken by astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – the first humans to circle the moon – any failure along the way might have given the Soviet program an insurmountable lead in the race, while also dampening the optimism of millions of taxpayers. The story is told by surviving Apollo astronauts and engineers.

One of best scenes in Jaws comes when Robert Shaw describes the lingering tragedy that began with the sinking of USS Indianapolis, after being struck by a pair of torpedoes. It was the first time most Americans learned of the shark attacks on dozens of sailors stranded at sea for five long days and nights, without food, potable water, vests that retained their buoyancy and anything to get the oil off their bodies. We remember the sharks, but the top-secret mission that preceded the ship’s sinking has been largely forgotten. Ditto, the Navy’s rush to blame Captain Charles B. McVay III for its own malfeasance. (His name wouldn’t be cleared until 2000, three decades after he committed suicide.) It wasn’t until 2017 that an expedition financed by philanthropist Paul G. Allen discovered the ship, resting in an impact crater, at a depth of 18,044 feet below the surface of the North Philippine Sea. PBS’s “USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter” successfully reconstructs the ship’s heroic legacy, her dramatic final moments and the discovery of the wreck site. Watching survivors study images of the Indianapolis, transmitted from the submersible, is as emotionally rewarding as anything we’ve witnessed in this era of undersea exploration.

As much as I miss Judy Davis’ presence on the big scream – her last credit was for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (2015) —  it’s great to see the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner in such prestigious mini-series as “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the upcoming Netflix drama, “Ratched,” and Outback thriller, “Mystery Road.” Before jumping feet-first into the latest entry, it’s worth doing some homework first. Although Davis is the marquee attraction here, the show really belongs to Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal police detective, whose bristly personality doesn’t always sit well with the non-native ranchers, farmers and traffickers in humans and drugs. Given the vast acreage the police are required to survey, and closed-mouth attitudes of the locals, finding crooks can be as challenging as separating fleas from a kangaroo’s hide. Adding to the degrees of difficulty are the largely hidden network of springs, waterfalls, streams and caverns, known only to Aboriginals, who’ve lived here centuries before the almost simultaneous arrival of the first Commonwealth felons and European rabbits. Ivan Sen’s feature-length Mystery Road (2013) introduced  Swan to crime-hungry Aussies. It was followed three years later by Goldstone (2016), which reset the action hundreds of miles away, in Furnace Creek, where a brothel/bar serves as a destination for girls flown in from Southeast Asia to service miners, in exchange for pay off family debts. For the 2018 mini-series, also called “Mystery Road,” Sen passed the baton to Aboriginal director  Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae). It takes place in linear time between the previous two movies, in a community that time may have forgot, but whose residents remember hundreds of years’ worth of slights and insults, crimes large and small, and incidents fueled by deeply entrenched racism and corruption. Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands on an outback cattle station. Working together with local police sergeant Emma James (Davis), the investigation uncovers drug trafficking in the town, and a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community. They don’t form a natural team, even though she’s part native, but get the work done … as long as she doesn’t expect responses to her questions or smiles to her jokes. It’s available on Acorn’s screening service and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Acorn’s far lighter mini-series “The Simple Heist” describes the two-woman crime spree, conducted by Jenny (Lotta Tejle) and Cecilia (Sissela Kyle), who, at a time when they should planning their retirements, discover that they’ve fallen for a fraudulent scheme involving Chinese securities and a criminally one-sided divorce agreement. Cecilia dreads the day when she’ll be forced to reveal the loss to her husband, who’s been given little cause to mistrust her. Jenny’s account has been frozen since divorce proceedings began. He’s an unlikeable bloke, who only realizes that’s he chosen the wrong woman to cheat when it’s too late.  In a scheme that combines elements of Going in Style (1979) and Small Time Crooks (2000), Jenny and Cecilia – a teacher and a gastroenterologist – take the advice of a dying security guard, who recommends robbing a bank in Stockholm. Even if everything that could go wrong, does, they wind up with containers full of money that they know are booby-trapped. They turn to a pair of ornery bikers who are as trustworthy as bald tires. It’s at this point, that things really start going sideways for the old gals, who’ve already begun to spend their windfall. As old-fashioned as the premise is, the actors make The Simple Heist irresistible.

Like “Midsomer Murders” and other small-town procedurals from foreign sources, New Zealand’s “The Brokenwood Mysteries” succeeds in making the characters’ home communities feel as comfortable and inviting as our own. Even when we begin to feel a fogbank of complacency as it rolls over the fields and quaint homes, something cruel and unexpected happens to get tongues wagging and deadbolts locking. Because each boxed set of “Brokenwood” procedurals contains four stand-alone episodes, the show and its quirky cops and interesting antagonists have been compared to “Columbo” and other entries in NBC’s “Mystery Movie” wheel in the 1970s. In Series 5, Shepherd and his team investigate the death of an amusement park owner killed on his own haunted-house ride; a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong; the systematic targeting of a will’s beneficiaries; and a gruesome electrocution in an abandoned asylum. As usual, New Zealand is one of the best countries on countries to shoot pictures.

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“Dude, I don’t like the way you talk, bro. How can you tell me that it’s going to be hard? Do you see a lot of people like you writing stories? Give me a break, bro. That’s your strength, that you’re not like us. Go out there and tell your stories. Don’t go out there and try to be like Quentin or me or anybody else. We need you. Tell me what makes you angry, why you’re arrogant, or fearful, whatever it is. Don’t hide anything. Be honest. What is that thing that bothers you and makes you distinct? Everyone’s looking for you. A Mexican point-of-view to tell a story right now? I’m telling you, everybody wants that right now. I desperately need you to tell your story in your way. You are essential.”
~ M. Night Shyamalan

“My films are always brought to life from an idea, a coincidence, or a dreamlike magic. An ephemeral moment that settles in my mind and starts to bloom. The plot slowly appears before my eyes, and there’s nothing left but to write it. I actually do use a mood board. And location scouting is essential to the realization of the film. I’m inspired by architecture — the beauty of certain neighborhoods, the mystery in odd buildings, or streets that suggest psychoanalytic theories. I only choose my actors after I write the script.”
~ Dario Argento